better or worse

As experience and age increases, you can look back on your life and see change. Sometimes, there can be significant difference between the kind of person we are now and the person we used to be.

On the one hand, it may be that we are better, that we have learned from mistakes, that we have made progress. On the other hand, of course, it may be that we are worse, that we have forgotten important principles, that we have regressed.

What we think about our progress or regress may be different from the reality. For example, it is far more comfortable to think of ourselves as having made progress; to look back in triumphal dis-association, saying, “I am glad I’m not that person anymore.” By contrast, it is deeply disturbing to say to oneself, “What kind of person have I become? How did I get here?”

It seems to me that in order for myself to make a more accurate assessment of my progress or regress, I need the input of others. Indeed, if I have other people whom I can increasingly ask for and accept their perception of my well-being, it is a sign of progress. If, however, I increasingly fear or despise the views of more and more people, assuming my own perception to be more true than theirs, I would take that to be a sign of regress.

The following questions emerge from this reflection:

Am I growing closer or further away from people who can help me become a better person?

Am I sensing an increase or decrease in partnership, community and relationship with others in general?

Am I growing in my ability to accept people I disagree with, or is my frustration with them burning hotter and hotter?

What habits can I build into my life to help me grow towards others, rather than away from them?

the danger of “I am not like ___” thinking

Mirroring the growing divide in political discourse around the world is a growing divide within the church between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ believers.

Both would claim to be trying to correctly express and live Christian faith, but it seems to me that ‘progressive’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of appropriate correction, adaptation and renovation, whilst ‘conservative’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of conservation, perseverance and restoration.

Politically, this (perhaps not always consistently?) tends to make ‘progressive’ believers have a more left-leaning approach, and ‘conservative’ believers have a more right-leaning approach.

If you can anticipate me saying that a ‘both/and’ approach is needed, that would be because that is precisely what I think is needed.

Just as the Gospel cannot ‘fit’ within the political ‘left’ or ‘right’, but instead affirms and challenges both, our understanding of the Gospel always needs both correction and conservation; adaptation and perseverance; renovation and restoration. Continuity and Discontinuity. New and Old. Faithfulness and Innovation. Word and Spirit.

The opposite of this ‘both/and’ approach is the posture that says “I am not like _____”. Two quick examples are a) the Pharisee (Luke 18:11) who was grateful to not be like the sinner, and b) the elite and presentable parts of the body who do not want to associate with the lowly and unpresentable parts.

In other words, we need one another more than we realise, and more than we are comfortable with.

a consistent ethic of non-violence

My father-in-law, Greg, has volunteered one of the most poignant statements I’ve ever heard about non-violence. After encountering a young would-be robber outside their property, Greg was asked if he’d ever considered keeping a gun. His response was as sharp as it was brief: “No. I’d rather be robbed than kill someone.”

Non-violence is hardest in situations where violence feels justified. The Christchurch mosque shooter (who we should continue not to name) brutally murdered and injured many victims. Many people, fueled by a sense of righteous justice, would have shot him if they’d had the chance. The dutiful New Zealand police, however, apprehended him without taking his life. Or consider Mohamed Jauber’s forgiveness offered to the shooter, who killed a family friend.

I take it as an evidence-based observation that violence will naturally lead to more violence. We have to restrain ourselves from the tendency to escalate or avenge. Justice is one thing – mercy and grace are another.

There are many levels of violence. Let us not think that we can be violent at one level without encouraging violence at another.

In what follows, I want to focus on non-violence at the level of political discourse. We have – rightly – been reminded many times to challenge harmful ideas whenever we encounter them. I want to suggest strongly that we must do this challenging with a spirit of non-violence.

I am concerned that political discourse could become even more violent. For example (far too soon after the tragic events, long before the bodies of the victims were in the ground), I’ve seen people weaponising the Christchurch tragedy. It is used as confirmation that they were right all along, and that those they disagree with were always contributing to the problem.

In the name of “challenging white supremacy”, we must not engage in social violence (online or in person) that shames, labels, mocks, ridicules, ostracizes, or otherwise pushes into isolation those we see as holding wrong views.

Let us assume, for the moment, that your view is right and helpful, and that the other person’s view is wrong and harmful. I believe that if we push the person to the dark margins of society, the view is free to grow and spread. Evil grows in the dark. But light dispels darkness.

So you have an acquaintance who is racist? Do you want them to be able to enjoy their racist views without any challenge? Be as nice to them as you can. Socialise with them. Include them. If and when you have (or have built) a relationship with them, and when it is appropriate to respectfully challenge their views, do so without mockery, labels, blame or arrogance. If your view is strong enough, you won’t need to get mean or loud to make your point. Publicly shaming or rejecting them may feel good for you, but it won’t make a hint of difference to them – in fact it could only strengthen their views.

Try to understand why they might have come to have the view they have before asserting your view. Spend the necessary time looking for even the smallest superficial points of common ground. (For example, a left-leaning person could agree with a right-leaning person that benefit fraud is wrong. Or a right-leaning person could agree with a left-leaning person that not every person on the benefit is just lazy and could be working.)

The opposite is ugly, violent politics. Where frustrated people feel not listened to – and aren’t listened to. Where their belief that dialogue and talking are pointless – because all they’ve ever experienced is being labeled and ignored. Where they feel more and more isolated from society. Where this isolation breeds resentment, rage and an intensification of their beliefs. Where their mental health suffers. Where they eventually do horrible things.

In the way I engage with those I disagree with, I have to model the kind of ethics I am trying to promote. It won’t do to talk acceptance of people in a way that rejects people. It won’t do to talk of understanding people when I won’t give their view a hearing. It won’t do to talk of embracing difference if I unfriend those I disagree with. It won’t do to promote kindness when I act like a jerk.

If I want to see less violence in the world, I have to live non-violence at every level.

cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

lament with thanksgiving

Lament and thanksgiving are two entirely valid modes of prayer.

Both are biblical and practical.  Like God’s people in every time and place, it is a healthy practice to offer to God both our ‘why’ and our ‘thanks’.  In my survey of local Baptist worship in Aotearoa New Zealand, I considered the extent to which forms of prayer such as praise and thanksgiving were dominant, and found reason to believe that forms such as confession and lament were more rare.  In this post, I’m interested in reasons why lament in particular seems uncommon, and whether or not there might be a symbiotic relationship between lament and thanksgiving.

I think the main reasons for less (or no) lament in public worship are emotional and theological in nature.  Emotionally, it really is a bit of a drag and doesn’t really (at least on the surface) prepare people to go out in confident mission to the world.  Theologically, some may feel that such prayers reflect a lack of gratitude or trust.

I get it.  It’s not enjoyable, and it can seem to clash with gratitude.  I certainly think it would be inappropriate for a service to have too much lament.  But what if lament and thanksgiving go together more than we realize?

I propose the following: When Christians gather for worship, a mixture of lament and thanksgiving is a healthy middle between two extremes.  At one extreme, when there is too much lament and not enough thanksgiving, the service feels less like worship and more like a grumbling session.  This kind of worship succeeds in justifying our resentment and anger when things don’t go our way, and fails to transform our boredom into joy.  At the other extreme, when there is only thanksgiving, free of lament, the service can feel a bit shallow and inauthentic.  This kind of worship fails to appreciate that every day is full of events which even God laments, and for which lament is the proper response, and succeeds in presenting Christianity as a faith which is out of touch with reality.

So then.  Lament? Yes.  And then give thanks.

possibility and surrender

I met a friendly man today who, learning of my religiosity, asked me about my views on science and faith.  It was a good chat, not too long, and remained wonderfully amicable.

The man was, by global and local standards, wealthy, educated and articulate.  At least some of the time, such a demographic can tend to view the ‘God’ topic primarily as an interest, a curiosity; certainly not a matter of life and death.

During the conversation, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, the science-and-faith conversation.  Is this still a popular topic for people?  Usually it’s hell or homosexuality.”  I have no idea of his intentions, but very often many Christians feel like such conversations have little if anything to do with someone’s genuine interest in (or pursuit of) faith, and everything to do with some kind of justification of their unbelief.  The theological out-clauses are many: global suffering and evil, hypocrisy in the church, science and/or evolution, hell, homosexuality, ‘the Old Testament’, etc.

This leads me to another thought, which emerged from my reflections.  It is the reality that if an ultimate invisible and limitless being is real, then that kind of opens up literally anything and everything as being possible.  A ‘god’ could be very controlling and hands-on, more distant and deistic, or somewhere in the middle; evil, good, impatient, patient.  If people just start believing in ‘god’ willy nilly, well they might start believing just about anything about that ‘god’.  This ‘god’ might send 99.9999% of humans to hell, gays first of course, and save only the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  Or this ‘god’ might be the mamby pamby, everything-and-everyone-is-great, domesticated, flaccid (and frankly boring) deity… Anything is possible if there is a ‘god’!

The truth behind all this is precisely this: Yes, you and I don’t get to say what God is like.  God may have attributes we don’t find pleasant or popular in our time and culture.

This is where a little notion called surrender comes in.  This is where we stop trying to be more moral than God.  This is where we let go of all our controlling questions and submit to the reality of an Ultimate being, far stronger and higher than us.

The good news, literally, is that in the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to wonder – or fear! – what God might be like.  We have a Creator and Saviour who is radically committed to the creation, humans in particular.  So much so that this God is long-suffering and hell-bent on saving us, despite our almost continual rejection, rebellion, apathy and downright selfishness.

Anything is possible with God; and what a good possibility it is with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

political Christianity

Let me open with an if/then statement.  If Christianity is anything more than B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), and I heartily believe it is, then it necessarily has to do with how the wholeness of life is played out in the here and now.  This means Christianity necessarily has a political component to it.  And here’s a yes/but statement.  Yes, there is vastly more to Christianity than politics, but it is not apolitical.

The sweeping Story of Scripture presents a Gospel that cannot be contained by any single political party, even a ‘Christian’ political party.  Indeed, the values and imperatives of Scripture cover pretty much the entire political spectrum.

The ‘right’ end of the spectrum will find its emphasis on personal responsibility affirmed and strengthened by Scripture.  Consider Proverbs 6:6-11 as motivation to as right-wing folk will say, “get off your rear and work as much as you can, and stop relying on the government.”

The left end of the political spectrum, with its convictions about basic rights and freedoms, will find just as much support from Scripture; from the golden rule of treating your neighbour as yourself, through to the more sharp and radical command to love your enemies.  Everything from social welfare, ecological preservation and non-violent pacifism have direct links to Scripture.

Even a controversial issue such as same-gender relationships finds the whole spectrum covered by Scripture.  Conservatives will find their convictions about sex, marriage and gender affirmed by passages which echo through in both the Old and New Testaments.  Progressives will find abundant biblical support for their passionate concern for the protection of the person-hood and identity of all regardless of any of their personal characteristics.

In addition to offering support all along the political spectrum, Scripture also offers subversion and opposition at all points as well.  To the arrogant ‘conservatives’ wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus the ‘liberal’ steps in to defend her basic freedoms with non-condemning, patient love, whilst at the same time pointing a stinging finger at the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in shaming someone else for their sin than they are at humbly acknowledging their own.  To any and all at the progressive ‘left’ who slide into complacent and compromised affirmation of things that go against Scripture, Jesus represents someone who held to the authority of Scripture, even as he sought to direct people past erring traditional interpretations of it.  Jesus was not interested in building a theocracy to manipulate people into obedience, nor was there any ‘moving on’ from fundamental Jewish convictions to make the faith palatable.

In other words, the Gospel of Scripture is always big enough to offer both comfort and challenge to everyone.

shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.